An estimated one in three children between the ages of 9 and 11 have high or borderline-high cholesterol, potentially placing them at greater risk of future cardiovascular disease, according to a study conducted in Texas and set to be presented next week.
In one of the largest studies of elevated cholesterol levels in this age group, researchers looked at the medical records of 12,712 children from the Texas Children's Pediatrics Associates clinics, the nation's largest pediatric primary care organization. Of these, 4,709, or 30 percent, had borderline or elevated total cholesterol as defined by the National Cholesterol Education Program.
“The sheer numbers of abnormal values certainly shows us that this is a problem that warrants an intervention,” Thomas Seery, M.D., the lead investigator of the study, told Al Jazeera on Friday. But in order to intervene, doctors must first be able to diagnose the problem, he said.
He emphasized the need to routinely screen children for cholesterol levels, especially given the growing obesity epidemic.
An abnormal cholesterol level is defined as having borderline or elevated levels, Seery said. The study said higher levels of cholesterol, and cumulative exposure to it, are associated with the development of atherosclerosis – a narrowing and hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease.
The study found that 45 percent of obese children who were screened had abnormal cholesterol levels, while 35 percent of non-obese children had abnormal levels.
However, Seery noted that one limitation of the study is that it is unknown if screenings were conducted in a universal manner or selectively based on individual risk factors.
Further research is needed in order to determine the rate at which doctors are following guidelines that were rolled out in 2011 encouraging routine cholesterol screenings in children, Seery said.
Doctors typically conduct cholesterol screenings in children with risk factors such as family history or obesity, Seery said. But limiting screenings to those with risk factors causes doctors to miss 30 to 60 percent of children with abnormal levels of cholesterol but with no risk factors, he added.
The authors of the study hope the findings will push doctors to conduct universal cholesterol screenings of children between the ages of 9 and 11 years and, again, between 17 and 21.
Despite universal screening recommendations that are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, some doctors remain hesitant to screen children due to concerns that they will be started on medication unnecessarily.
But adopting a healthy diet and exercise are first-line therapies for children with abnormal cholesterol levels, Seery said in a press release.
"Kids need to have their cholesterol panel checked at some point during this timeframe," Seery said. "In doing so, it presents the perfect opportunity for clinicians and parents to discuss the importance of healthy lifestyle choices on cardiovascular health. Our findings give a compelling reason to screen all kids' blood cholesterol."